In search of hotel excellence: Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac

When you have a property that’s more than just a hotel, but an icon for a city (and perhaps a country!), calling the role of general manager “complex” is an understatement. Such is the situation that Robert Mercure finds himself in as one of the leaders of Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, Canada.

Approaching 120 years old, the property sits on federal government land adjacent to an archeological site of Chateau St. Louis, the original seat of the French government in North America. It was from this location that the 1600s colonial governor oversaw operations that stretched from Louisiana to the Great Lakes. That building burnt to the ground in 1834, and it took some 60 years until the original portion of the Chateau Frontenac was built in its place. The present property, inaugurated in 1893, has been expanded numerous times and now comprises some 618 rooms on 18 floors. The property dominates the old walled city of Quebec (itself a UNESCO heritage site), with a copper roof, multiple turrets and sloped peaks. To say that this hotel’s exterior appearance is totally unique is an understatement — it’s on practically every postcard of Quebec City!

Inside, the property is anything but cookie-cutter. The massive lobby looks more castle than hotel, with every surface symbolically carved or emblazoned. Each subsequent addition required careful architectural consideration. The result is a labyrinth of corridors, all heavily decorated. Just study the map on the elevator landing and you’ll quickly appreciate that housekeeping efficiency was never the architects’ priority.

To prevent total bedlam, the hotel is simplified into 10 room-rate booking categories, with significant variations in each category. My room was considered a mini-suite — windows on three sides and tucked into the dormers of a multi-roof peak.

Sure, there are numerous chain properties available as alternatives. Yet, when in Quebec City, I can’t imagine staying anywhere else. Bragging rights come from sleeping in the location where Churchill, King and Roosevelt attended the Quebec Conferences of 1943 where they planned the D-Day invasion, or, in more modern times, where Reagan and Mulroney discussed the early forms of NAFTA. The hotel oozes history from every pore.

My conversation with Mr. Mercure focused on the property and some of the unique challenges at work. He acknowledged that the property’s room stock needs upgrading to keep pace with standards. With the last major remodel some 20 years ago, it’s showing some age. Indeed, many of the TripAdvisor comments accurately reflect the high degree of variation in current room quality and age.

Whereas summer peak traffic fills the property from May through September, and the world famous Carnaval de Quebec provides a two-week respite each February, the group segment is a critical component to off-season success. Even here, the property has a need to increase the available space for meetings.

To address these issues, Mr. Mercure was eager to tell me about a major expansion plan scheduled for official announcement coinciding with the property’s 120th anniversary. The focus of this renovation, the 10th or 11th in the hotel’s history, will see complete guestroom revitalization and an expansion of meeting space, creating some of the most unique venues in North America or perhaps the world.

“This new work will go quite literally under the current property, linking our meeting space with the historic site that exists to the south under the Dufferin Terrace,” Mercure said. “In effect, this expansion will be part construction, part excavation and part archaeological dig. The plan is to line the walls with the artifacts we expect to discover. Once completed, we’ll be able to hold events in the already excavated basement of the former Chateau St. Louis, a 500-year-old site. That is completely unique for what is typically called the New World.”

In terms of the guestrooms, Mr. Mercure was equally excited in saying, “It is true that our guestroom stock is in need of enhancement. But this is no run-of-the-mill hotel renovation. Almost every room has unique elements. We never know what we’ll find when we remove walls or try to change plumbing fixtures. Each room, in effect, is its own mini-archaeological exploration, albeit only from the past 120 years.”

Food & beverage will also be a key element of this redesign. While our meal was in the illustrious Le Champlain dining room, the ambiance is nonetheless indicative of old world, and the menu is still rather traditional. Mr. Mercure and Executive Chef Jean Soulard have plenty of ideas for a full menu overhaul.

The three pillars of Fairmont management are expressed as unrivalled presence, authentically local and engaging service. Mr. Mercure has a fourth axiom: protecting history. From all the postcards, you’d think this property is a cash cow, regardless of who’s in charge. Clearly, this is not the case. Not only must he keep pace with the heightened expectations of the modern consumer, but he also must appease the preservationists at large. With great historic presence also comes great expense, and Mr. Mercure is hard at work to balance this delicate equation.